Shorting Zillow Is Your Best Bet in Housing This Year


U.S. home seekers are desperately eyeing an expected turn in housing prices, but the best near-term deal in real estate could come from yet another price cut to

Zillow’s


Z -4.73%

stock.  

Having lost two-thirds of its value over the past 12 months on the heels of its home-flipping implosion, Zillow Group has already fallen to a market capitalization of barely $8 billion, despite the fact that virtually every U.S. adult is still “surfing” its namesake site monthly. Zillow might continue to draw a crowd, but that won’t earn a business model based on transactions much money.

More pain is likely coming. On its second-quarter conference call, even Chief Executive

Rich Barton,

known for his upbeat, colorful divinations, described the housing market as undergoing a “rebalancing.” In July, sales of new single-family homes fell nearly 30% on an annual basis and nearly 13% versus June. New home inventory has ballooned to the highest level in more than a decade. Zillow now expects transactions to “meaningfully contract” as inventory rises this year. 

In perhaps the biggest sign that Zillow isn’t expecting a miraculous recovery in the near-term, Mr. Barton said he launched an employee-retention plan this month, including an off-cycle grant of restricted stock units to employees—ultimately accepting an expected 2% dilution over a few years in an attempt to ensure his top talent doesn’t flee over lower compensation, much of which is often based on equity value.

Yet Wall Street might not have fully digested this warning sign. Analysts’ third-quarter sales estimates for Zillow’s agent ads business (its largest) have come down by an average of just 12% since the company’s second-quarter report. On average, those estimates are still 7% above the midpoint of Zillow’s guidance.

Perhaps investors should take Zillow at its word. You might think fewer potential transactions would have agents upping their ad spending to compete for the smaller number of buyers there. But it seems that isn’t the case: Chief Financial Officer

Allen Parker

candidly said on the second-quarter call earlier this month that in a quickly declining macroeconomic environment, agent ad spending tends to slow down as buyer demand wanes. Importantly, he also said the slowdown in spending on Zillow’s platform tends to lead the market’s transaction declines, implying Zillow could see outsize weakness sooner rather than later. 

Zillow’s agents don’t pay for idle eyeballs; they pay for motivated leads. A decline in their platform spending would suggest that, at least when the chips are down, they don’t feel like they are getting enough of those leads yet from Zillow. That might help to explain why 234 million people surf Zillow’s apps and sites monthly (a figure equivalent to over 90% of U.S. adults), but Zillow monetizes only 3% of U.S. real-estate transactions. 

Longer-term, this will probably improve. Its new partnership with automated home-flipping market leader

Opendoor


OPEN -4.16%

means Zillow will collect a referral fee when its users choose to sell directly to Opendoor. But the bigger hope is that those whom Opendoor turns down, or who decide to sell the traditional way, can be fed as quality leads to Zillow’s so-called “Premier Agents.” It also brings to the platform home sellers it can try to monetize on a subsequent home purchase, via adjacent services like mortgages, title and escrow. 

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Getting into bed with the company that just last year was its rival in iBuying had to be hard for Zillow, given its own failure in that business. So its decision to pursue a partnership despite that underscores Zillow’s belief in the scope of the opportunity on the seller side of transactions for its own platform. 

Zillow wants to evolve from America’s favorite pastime to its best-paid quarterback on both sides of the real-estate game. The fact that its mobile app has over three times the number of monthly active users as its closest competitor means that, if anyone can do it, Zillow probably can.

Write to Laura Forman at laura.forman@wsj.com

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